All These Dreams
Andrew Combs’ All These Dreams thrives in widescreen and close-up. It’s a lush, imaginative production that’s also a series of intimate character sketches.
The 29-year-old Dallas-bred, Nashville-based Combs wrote or co-wrote every track on the album. He has a clear affection for classic country themes and characters – the lovelorn, the downtrodden and the desperate. What distinguishes his characters is their optimism or, in the absence of optimism, their eloquence and wit in the face of adversity.
This sensibility is established on the album’s first track, “Rainy Day Song,” which is also a showcase for Combs’ conversational lyrical style.
“A friend once told me,” Combs sings. “He said, ‘Boy you sound so lonely…All these leavin’, cheatin’, done me wrongs…Ever heard of a happy song?
“Offended I set down my glass, smiled and let the moment pass…Tab’s on me if you think I’m lyin’…Laughin’ ain’t a pleasure till you know ’bout crying.”
The protagonist of the album’s second song, “Nothing to Lose,” doesn’t pull punches describing his plight:
“Skin and bones in an overcoat…Silhouette all bent and broke…Counting coins for a bottle of wine…Pride got the best of me…She took the rest of me…Look close and you’ll see…A man with nothing fighting for something…God bless nothing to lose.”
With their exquisite mix of strings and pedal steel and their clear, immediately compelling melodies, both “Rainy Day” and “Nothing” are two of the most beautiful and atmospheric album openers I’ve ever heard. In particular, “Rainy Day” is a deft throwback to the polish and opulence of Countrypolitan’s heyday.
Every song on All These Dreams is atmospheric and deeply melodic in its own way. Combs and producers Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning – working with more than a dozen musicians and back-up singers – have crafted a sonic canvas that crackles with brilliant musicianship and creative, unexpected hooks.
In particular, I can’t imagine the album without the pedal steel arrangements by Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr. – the duo known as Steelism – as well as the playing by Cullum. Their work graces nearly every song, enhancing melodies and sometimes carrying them.
But Combs’ rich, supple voice is the lifeblood of this Americana symphony. He keeps us connected to these very messy emotional struggles. And he never seems to push for effect. He’s emotive without being overdramatic, charismatic but still very much an everyman.
The album’s lead single, “Foolin’,” is a breezy piece of folk pop with an exhilarating sing-a-long chorus reminiscent of The Byrds in the “Mr. Tambourine Man”era. Combs never lets this blissful vibe overtake the song’s sad and, at times, disturbing tale of a man fed up with himself and trying to muster up a cry for help.
Combs clearly finds inspiration in the poetic, desolate melancholy often found in the work of the late, trailblazing singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
“I’m lost, I’m cold, so drunk again…Such a strange but sweet melody,” Combs sings on “Slow Road to Jesus.” “I don’t need your sun to shine…Just the warm glow of your wine on the slow road to Jesus.”
The song’s spare accompaniment builds to a brief, feverish instrumental interlude that feels like it was lifted out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions. As delectable as this stylistic indulgence is, it could have pulled “Slow Road” apart. But Combs keeps the focus on the unfolding narrative.
Combs’ writing is not immune to clichés. Yet he consistently finds ways to subvert these clichés.
The torchy piano ballad “In the Name of You,” one of Combs’ two solo compositions on the album, reads like a lot of love songs.
“I know I don’t talk much
And it seems to be when comes to love
Well it’s hard for me to speak my mind and tell the world the truth
But I’d do it all in the name of you.”
“The sun would fall
My skies would cry
My world would be so lonely
Without my one and only
Lying softly at my side.”
Look at the lyrical awkwardness in the passage, “…when it comes to love…Well it’s hard…” Also, listen to the way Combs’ voice seems to nearly give out throughout the song even as it swells with passion and yearning. He’s conveying the stormy interior of a man searching for his words. It’s evidence of a specific personality, not a routine rubber stamping of genre convention.
While Combs proves to be a skilled student of past masters and reinventing tropes, he also reveals himself to be an artist of considerable vision. It’s a vision shared by an obviously tight group of collaborators.
“Strange Bird” is a unique take on the dating game that soars and glides like its winged protagonist. The song is sunny and light yet quite the high wire ballet of pedal steel, whistling, wowing vocal runs and just the right touch of sound effects. It feels at once spontaneous and carefully constructed.
“Pearl,” Combs’ second solo composition on the album, widens the scope on the recurring theme of hope – however faint – in the midst of despair. The song assembles a mosaic of stories from society’s margins:
“That drunk on the street,” Combs sings. “Passed out in a ball at your feet…Did you know he’s got a song to sing…And he plays a mean guitar?
“Prisoner one-two-five-oh pickin’ up trash on the side of road…Yeah he’s carrying a heavy load…Took the blame so his brother can run.”
There’s also the junky baseball star, a corrupt cop with a surprising fate and a passage about a young mother that’s absolutely devastating. And there’s more. “Pearl” is almost cinematic in the way it draws these lives together, delivers its message and builds toward a revelatory climax.
Combs is at his raspiest here, a reflection of the gritty world he’s portraying. Yet, as the song unfolds, his voice cracks with varying emotions – pathos and even anger. His performance turns the song into a prayer for compassion and empathy.
“Pearl” pulls you in with a thick, tantalizing bass line and a gorgeous, mournful Steelism melody. Successive listens pull out more subtle elements – a twinkling piano, a quietly hymnal backing chorus and percussion that keeps this slow burn buoyant.
The same trajectory applies to the experience of All These Dreams as a whole. It takes multiple listens to truly appreciate the depth of craft and artistry at play. This is an album to live with, in all its grandeur and vivid details. Few releases meant as much to me in 2015. Combs’ opus never strayed too far from my ears. I don’t see that changing any time soon.